Shaun King, Thomas Jefferson, and the facts

Activist Shaun King recently published an article where he attacks Thomas Jefferson for being an evil man:

I genuinely view men like Thomas Jefferson in the same way I view any other intelligent, gifted leader who also happened to be cruel beyond belief — he was a monster. Owning, buying, selling, trading, and raping human beings, no matter what year or era you did such things, is monstrous.

King goes on about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave with whom he is said to have fathered 1 to 6 children. He also criticizes Jefferson for holding 600 slaves, only a few of whom he ever freed. King continues:

He knew good and well it was as evil then as it would be today, but he deliberately and purposefully maintained the system of slavery not only in his own life, but also for the nation.

As President of the United States, he did absolutely nothing to slow slavery down. As the physical owner of 600 human beings who openly admitted he knew what he was doing was evil, he made a daily decision to be evil.

This is the sort of patently false claim you get when someone is more excited about saying something controversial rather than saying something which is true. Jefferson introduced bills and made proposals to stop or stem slavery all throughout his life, including while he was President. He drafted legislation to stop importing slaves to Virginia in the late 1770s. He later proposed banning slavery in the expanding west. As President, he signed legislation to stop the importation of slaves. After his presidency, he proposed an economic solution to slavery where the government would pay slave owners for their slaves. The slaves would then be trained in various trades. At multiple other points, he encouraged the farming of crops that required little slave labor.

Jefferson held a strong belief that freeing slaves all at once would lead to a flood of unskilled workers with no personal resources, no job prospects, and a large pool of discrimination against them. Of course, he didn’t necessarily disagree with the discrimination aspect, but his view was not without merit. After the Civil War, many former slaves remained where they were for lack of other options. This continued for some for decades. Indentured servitude became the default status of many. For others, they experienced a less disastrous economic outcome, albeit one that was far from ideal or remotely fair.

The reality is that any political attempt of a mass freeing of slaves would have been an utter disaster on every front in the late 1700s, early 1800s. The US was still fragile and likely to lose states over any issue big enough to divide them. And, undoubtedly, there was no bigger issue than slavery – even a half century after Jefferson’s presidency, we had to fight a war over the matter. A principled stand by Jefferson as president may have made him a darling of history, but it would have led to southern secession – which would have probably been successful at that time. The northern states wouldn’t have had the industrial power to operate a war time economy, much less the clout to cripple the southern economy. We would have seen slavery in a nation of the southern states well past 1863; Jim Crow laws would either still be in place today or only have been eliminated within recent memory.

It’s easy to look back today and declare that Jefferson and others should have done what they knew was right, but it is almost always a mistake to ignore the politics and context of the times. One man cannot sway an entire culture so dramatically entirely on his own. We saw this not long ago with the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The odds that Bill Clinton and many other Democrats actually believed that was a good policy in and of itself is incredibly low, but they knew it was a good policy insofar as it represented progress. If Clinton believed in equal rights for gay people (which he likely did and, of course, does), is the argument that he should have only advocated for completely fair treatment? That might feel nice to say, but it isn’t an argument that lives in reality. Clinton could have either made an argument for complete progress or he could have won a second term. Anyone who thinks he should have only argued for what was right should ask themselves how they would have felt about President Dole.

Returning to King on Hemings:

She was his legal property. Thomas and Martha Jefferson owned Sally from the time she was an infant. She could not leave. She was not free. Both Martha and Thomas Jefferson refused to free Sally Hemings their entire lives. Hemings remained enslaved at Monticello into her 50s.

Once again we see King not doing basic research – research he could have included while still making his same basic point. But, no. Any nuance which might muddy the waters even slightly isn’t allowed, apparently. Specifically, Sally Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom while in post-revolution France. She was in a country where slavery had been outlawed, and Jefferson quite clearly knew this. He even paid her a monthly wage so that he would be in compliance with French law. If he was absolutely against allowing her to leave, he never would have brought her to a country where she could have readily done so. King’s statement that the Jeffersons refused to free Sally Hemings is simply false. Furthermore, there is documentation that Hemings was recorded as a free person in the 1830s anyway. This was after Jefferson’s death and keeps with the fact that he believed most freed slaves would face excessively difficult conditions on their own.

Had King done this research, he could have still made the point that Hemings was not free in any meaningful way for most of her life. She was impregnated at 16 in a country where she barely spoke the language. Her entire family was still in the United States. She had little choice but to return. Or, that’s at least one viable argument. And it’s the same basic point he wants to make. Except he can’t make it with the same, easily-digestible short-and-to-the-point sentences. Nor can he avoid the fact that someone with no choice in a matter doesn’t get to negotiate the freedom of others – something Hemings did for her children in exchange for returning to the United States.

The notion that Thomas Jefferson was a perfect person is not one that anyone holds, but it is entirely ridiculous to argue that he was some evil man who deserves nothing but the scorn of history. His visionary contributions to his time have fundamentally reverberated into modern times – perhaps more than those of any other political or cultural figure. We should acknowledge his flaws and faults and failings, but we cannot simply dismiss the honor his monumental place in US and world history deserves.